NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Commentary: Anchor and Special Correspondent Soledad O'Brien reports for CNN's documentary series In America.
Michael Arrington thinks there should be more effort made to improve diversity in Silicon Valley. I agree. But that important message is being drowned out by a heated online debate.
In July, I interviewed Arrington for my upcoming documentary, Black in America: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, which chronicles the journey of eight African-American tech entrepreneurs trying to succeed in Silicon Valley.
Arrington founded the influential blog TechCrunch, which since 2005 has covered the tech startup environment. He's also a venture capitalist, helping fund tech entrepreneurs. And he has written previously that he believes Silicon Valley is a meritocracy.
Last week, we held three advance screenings of portions of the documentary. Arrington's comments, featured in those screenings -- which very few have seen, including Arrington -- sparked some criticism on social media.
In our documentary, Arrington said Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, if not a perfect one. "It doesn't matter what your education is, it doesn't matter who your parents are here. You can become very successful based purely on your brain size and how you use it."
He noted the lack of diversity: "I don't know a single black entrepreneur."
He offered an explanation in the shortcomings of America's education system and the lack of black engineers. "I think a lot of it goes back to school. A lot of the successful people here are engineers. Because if they aren't engineers they have to find an engineer to help them build software, or hardware, or both."
Perhaps his most controversial statement in the documentary is his assertion that the scarcity of black entrepreneurs gives them an edge. In the documentary, he suggests Silicon Valley insiders, such as himself, actively seek out diverse talent to support.
"We have a conference ... where 25 or 30 companies actually launch on stage ... There's a guy actually, his last company just launched at our event, and -- and he's African-American. When he asked to launch, actually I think it was the other way around, I think I begged him. It's a cool startup, his startup's really cool. But he could've launched a clown show on stage, and I would've put him up there, absolutely. I think it's the first time we've had an African-American be the sole founder."
On social media, some have criticized Arrington's suggestion of preferential treatment.
Others thought that a person who is known for his coverage of Silicon Valley but hasn't found any black entrepreneurs just isn't looking hard enough.
As the conversation heated up, Arrington wrote a blog post -- titled "Oh sh*t, I'm a racist" -- in which he accuses me of bullying him in our 30 minute interview.
But the reality is very different. Our interview was pleasant, not the light-in-the-eyes third degree Arrington is now recounting in his blog. We were at an AOL office with the publicists who negotiated the interview.
Ron Conway, a major investor in startups like Foursquare and Twitter, listened in on the interview. Afterward, Arrington introduced us and encouraged me to interview Conway, which I did. Parts of that interview are featured in the documentary as well. Then Arrington invited me to a party.
In his blog Arrington says CNN "went to great lengths to hide the topic of the interview." He posts an early e-mail from one of my producers asking him for a general interview about the tech industry.
He omits the second e-mail we sent four days before the interview that spells out that the documentary is about a "group of entrepreneurs we are following who are participating in the NewMe accelerator. The first accelerator of its kind set up specifically for entrepreneurs of color. Their inspiring stories will be the focus of this CNN Black in America documentary."
I didn't ambush Arrington and I don't think he's a racist. He's a realist.
What has everyone upset is that what he is saying is true -- there are not many blacks entrepreneurs succeeding in Silicon Valley.
Fewer than 1% of funded tech startups are run by African-Americans.
The NewMe accelerator is partially sponsored by Mitch Kapor, a white entrepreneur who created Lotus 1-2-3. He believes that Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy. His views are included in our documentary, as are the views of Duke professor Vivek Wadhwa, a mentor to the black tech entrepreneurs in the NewMe accelerator, who encourages them to find a white man to front their companies.
Arrington later blogs that he didn't have a "perfect sound bite" ready when he couldn't name a black entrepreneur. He thinks the question was a set-up.
No, it was an honest question to which he gave an honest answer.
I think the reason all this matters so much to people is because the tech boom is integral to our economic growth. Silicon Valley is still minting millionaires while the rest of the country struggles. Blacks (and Latinos, and women) want in, and right now they seem to be on the outs.
The NewMe entrepreneurs are trying to change the face of Silicon Valley.
Michael Arrington says he is too. On his blog he mentions that he has supported will.i.am, who is proposing an "ambitious new idea to help get inner city youth (mostly minorities) to begin to see superstar entrepreneurs as the new role models."
All the vitriol being thrown at him, me and between the two of us is less important than whether or not they succeed.
The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley will air on CNN November 13 at 8 p.m. ET.
|Latest Tesla fire caused by running over a metal object|
|Porn-viewing bosses infect corporate networks|
|Chrysler recalls 1.2 million trucks|
|Twitter stock already downgraded|
|What shutdown? Job growth strong in October|